Geography Awareness Week 2007

By Adena Schutzberg

I noted some years ago (2002, 2004) that Geography Awareness Week had gone dark and this year, alas, seems the same. The link off the Geography Action page at National Geographic that deals with this annual event includes just a paragraph. It reads:

"In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the third week in November as Geography Awareness Week (GAW). Every year since then, the National Geographic Society has promoted the importance of geography to the public and to schools throughout the United States and in Canada during Geography Awareness Week."

The link that follows, which promises resources, events and more, is dead. The correct URL does indeed list events. Strangely, the "events by state" link does not include a map. Sigh. The proclamation available to proclaim (pdf) the event in a particular geography is dated 2006.

Now, I'll quickly acknowledge that keeping up a website for an annual event is a challenge. And, I know National Geographic has woven Geography Awareness Week into the annual Geography Action initiative. I like that idea; I like that Geography Awareness Week is now part of the "everyday of each year" effort to educate about the discipline. It's not just a special time when, for a few days, we focus on this way of looking at the world.

Things have changed since that first Geography Awareness Week. In 1987 I was in grad school at Penn State. We took groups of elementary (I think) students through the halls and tried to introduce them to our field of study. Mostly, if I remember, they looked at paper maps and felt the bumps on the plastic topo map that covered the wall outside the department office. I recall thinking that what we grad students and those youngsters had in common was quite limited.

Spin forward 20 years. I feel confident that today I could have an intelligent conversation with such a school-aged student, who has Internet access, about the wonders of online mapping apps. Or if not that, online or multi-player games that take place in full 3D environments. I'm sure those students could teach me quite a bit about Second Life and FaceBook and tracking their friends, all of which have some degree of geographic reference. Year 2007 Geography Awareness Week visitors have a very different knowledge base than those of 20 years ago.

My point here is not to demonize events like Geography Awareness Week or GIS Day or to suggest they be put into storage. Instead, it's to suggest we stretch them out across the year, to be part of everyday events, as National Geographic has done. We need to look for "teachable moments."

I believe I heard the term "teachable moment" for the first time when my friends' children were attending a Montessori school. Dad excused himself from our conversation to take advantage of such a moment with his then four-year-old son. He later explained that parents were always on the lookout for such moments to instill in their children the values and lessons of their home, community and school.

There's wisdom there, and it translates beyond teaching the very young. It requires finding opportunities to educate your peers, your clients, your friends (your friends' kids!) about this wonderful perspective called geography and the amazing technologies that grow around it, including GIS, remote sensing, surveying, GPS and others.

I first made this connection between teachable moments and my work when Steve Fossett disappeared. That weekend I ended up on a 20 mile run with a high school teacher. She had a million questions for me about how they'd look for him and where the images came from and what the plane would look like… That's when it struck me that this was a perfect occasion, if sad, to educate the world about what we and others involved in geospatial technologies or research do. The recent fires in California were another, again sad, event that revealed the power of maps and the new ways they could be made and shared.

I don't know what the next teachable moment for geography and geospatial technologies will be. I do hope we as a community are ready to grab it and use it, no matter whether it falls during Geography Awareness Week or not.

Published Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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